Monday, February 4, 2013

Crime labs aren't perfect

I am shocked, SHOCKED, to find gambling in this establishment! The New York City ME's Office has found at least 50 cases in which it didn't upload DNA results to a state database. Ok, in the grand scheme of forensics lab mix-ups, this really isn't that bad. But this is supposed to be a pretty top of the line lab, with solid protocols and procedures and they still make mistakes like this. And I always have to wonder what are the mistakes we aren't hearing about.

I just want everyone to remember things like this when they hear about scientific evidence in a criminal case or in a courtroom. Scientific evidence is not infallible. It is only as good as the scientists who handle the evidence. (Which, Courts, is why we need the scientists to come and testify in court rather than just submit reports. Duh!)

Crime labs everywhere should be running these kinds of checks on themselves, auditing their work regularly. They should be open about the problems they find. All of that adds credibility and reliability. All defense attorneys have encountered those lab analysts who believe they can do no wrong. The DNA hack used by the prosecution in the Amanda Knox case famously testified that her lab has no controls for contamination, runs no tests to rule it out, etc., because they don't make mistakes so there's no need. With that attitude, I bet she wouldn't run any checks on her database, either.

Of course, what prompted the New York Medical Examiner's Office to uncover this data problem was the realization that one of their lab techs had failed to catch DNA evidence in 26 rape cases. So it's not like we can be sure this lab regularly runs quality checks on its work. Perhaps that lab is just a pipe dream for me. The reality is that no crime lab is perfect. They're all going to make mistakes. They shouldn't hide from that fact, they shouldn't stick their heads in the sand and pretend it couldn't possibly be true. The best crime labs out there don't think they're infallible.

What I would love to see is for other crime labs to take some initiative and conduct their own audits now, before they are on notice of a problem. I do like my pipe dreams.

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